The American Question
June 21st, 2012

I mentioned in Tuesday’s post that I’m reading Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, and that I’m really enjoying it.  It is the part-memoir/part-parenting book written in response to her experience raising small children in Paris.  She is a charming writer and even when I disagree with her position her humor and wit still make it a fun read.  That said, in spite of being a quick and easy book it’s given me a lot to think about.

Amidst Druckerman’s evaluations of how we feed, socialize, and care for our children I’ve been prompted to consider and question some of the key tenets of both French and American cultures.  There is a line in the 1995 remake of the movie Sabrina in which a glamorous Julia Ormand explains to a stuffy Harrison Ford that French culture is all about pleasure.  And she’s right.  When it comes to savoring life I’m not sure anyone does it better than the French.  (Although the Italians might give them a run for their money.)  America, on the other hand, is all about achievement, and Druckerman crystallizes that stance when she quotes a Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.

Druckerman researches various parenting philosophies as she tries to pin down exactly which discrete components add up to “French parenting.”  In her investigation of French parenting she tells how Piaget came to the States in the 1960s to share his theories on child development.  As he explains the various developmental stages through which all children must go apparently nearly all American parents ask some version of what he calls “The American Question” because it was asked ad nauseum by American parents.  That question was, “How can we speed up our child’s progression through these steps?”

Druckerman writes,

The American Question sums up an essential difference between French and American parents.  We American assign ourselves the job of pushing, stimulating, and carrying our kids from one developmental stage to the next.  The better we are at parenting, we think, the faster our kids will develop.  …

French parents just don’t seem so anxious for their kids to get head starts.  They don’t push them to read, swim, or do math ahead of schedule.  They aren’t trying to prod them into becoming prodigies.  I don’t get the feeling that – surreptitiously or otherwise – we’re all in a race for some unnamed prize.

This isn’t to say that the French are a bunch of louts.  Sure they can only claim 64 Nobel laureates to America’s 331.  But when you normalize those tallies by population (roughly 65 million for France and 313 million for the U.S.) each country has earned about one Nobel prize per million people.  And this doesn’t even begin to count the contribution of French art, music, literature, and food to the modern international cultural landscape.  No, they didn’t invent the cotton gin or the iPad, but  they seem to have discovered that more factors into a worthwhile life than mere commercial success.

I must admit, there’s something about the French approach to child rearing that really appeals to me.  Perhaps it’s just that Americans’ “concerted cultivation” can be exhausting (it can), but I also wonder if, at some level, the French way isn’t just a better way to raise kids.  When you get right down to it, most of us don’t grow up to be Condoleezza Rice or Bill Gates.  Most of us grow up to lead lives that are invaluable to ourselves and those in our immediate circles, but which would be considered unremarkable when evaluated at a global level.  Given that, would we not be better off learning from the very beginning how to live life in a way that maximizes enjoyment, rather than accomplishment?

Nevertheless, despite all of my misgivings about middle-class American parenting practices, I am American and I abide by many of them.  I still want my kids to hit their milestones at least on time, if not early.  And I want to see signs of their talents and intelligence even as they are tiny little youngsters.  But before my American-ness gets the better of me I make a point to remember an interview I heard with Malcolm Gladwell on NPR a couple of years ago.  He commented that when you meet someone as an adult, no one cares at what age they learned to talk or to read or memorized their multiplication tables.  Once we reach adulthood it matters that we can do these things, but not when we first learned.  So if that’s the case, what’s the rush?

2 Responses to “The American Question”

  1. BigLittleWolf Says:

    You know I couldn’t resist this article, Gale. With one toe (or several) in French waters for more than 35 years (dare I admit that?) – might I say that in addition to being expert at savoring their pleasures, the French are also highly critical – of their own leaders and systems, as well as anything else they observe or experience?

    It’s an interesting (at times irritating) contradiction, that really isn’t a contradiction. The French have a long, rich, varied history – and philosophical thought (as well as questioning and criticizing – and then acting) are pare of that.

    In this country, to criticize our way of doing things (other than other mothers???) is to be perceived as unpatriotic, unAmerican, un-something. If we don’t question, criticize (constructively), analyze and then seek change – how can we ever hope to improve on what we’re doing?

    Returning specifically to Parenting Parisian-style, my own feeling is that we should feel freer to pick and choose what suits us as families and what suits our children as individuals. More of the French style is advisable (in my opinion), but that doesn’t mean we have to surrender elements of engagement that encourage our children to thrive.

    To some extent, this is about moderation and common sense – and understanding that there is more of both if we look to the French model, without indicting our own. But in looking, we must also see that the entire system within which family life takes place is different than ours.

    School schedules are different. Childcare options are different. Parental leave is much much longer. Vacation is 6 weeks. “Benefits” do not disappear when you change employers.

    Even with the European economies in serious distress, the educational system and health care availability is not the drama that we live with in this country. Remove those two constant (potentially extremely expensive) worries, and parenting becomes a very different matter.

    I hope you don’t mind, but – if of interest:

  2. anne Says:

    I, too, enjoyed this book. In the final chapter or two, the author does mention some “American” aspects of parenting that she just can’t give up, and I appreciated that. I do get sick of the pushing. One of my biggest worries with my girl is that I don’t “stimulate her” enough, which, when I really think about it, is hooey. I sort of take it as another way in which Americans are just competitive. anyway, I liked the French style in certain ways, and found parts of it a little trickier…they don’t seem to think much of stay-at-home Moms, according to the book:)